David Allen discusses the 6 Horizons of Focus
Aside from the fact that the volume of what people need to organize is often light-years beyond what they imagine, there is much more to getting a grip on your “work” than most realize. Managing the flow of work can be approached from many altitudes, as there are many different levels of defining what your “work” really is. Whereas we may have some lower levels in control, there are often incomplete and unclear issues at higher levels that can and need to be addressed, to really get it all under control. And often there are issues about the nature and volume of work that cannot be resolved viewing it from an inappropriate level. We have roughly categorized “work” into six levels, or horizons of focus.
This is admittedly a somewhat arbitrary delineation, but it has proven valuable for many clients to frame their conversations, questions, and issues within this context.
This is the ground floor – the huge volume of actions and information you currently have to do and to organize, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to talk to staff about, etc. If you got no further input in your life, this would likely take you 300-500 hours to finish. Just getting a complete and current inventory of the next actions required at this level is quite a feat.
Horizon 1: Projects
This is the inventory of your projects – all the things that you have commitments to finish, that take more than one action step to complete. These “open loops” are what create most of your actions. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified.
Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g. boss.) With a clear and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibility are, and what you are (and are not) doing about them, there are likely new projects to be created, and old ones to be eliminated.
Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals and objectives
Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in right now be looking like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and on the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people who are doing only what they were hired to do. These days, job descriptions are moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals; and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of the work at the departmental or divisional level. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.
Horizon 4: Three- to five-year vision
The goals and direction of the larger entity within which you operate heavily influence your job and your professional direction. Where is your company going to be, one to three years from now? How will that be affecting the scope and scale of your job, your department, and your division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How is the definition and relationship with your customers going to be changing, etc.? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined, and new action steps to move them forward.
Horizon 5: Purpose and principles
What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc.? From an organizational perspective, this is the Purpose and Vision discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organized you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, your health, your spiritual life, etc., you will still have “incompletes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.
I keep a card my on desk with these categories, from the bottom up.
1. Next actions
2. Projects, near-term
3. Areas of responsibility
4. 6 month to 1 year desired outcomes
5. 3 to 5 year goals/objectives
6. Purpose of life
With the very important footnote: review regularly.
I’m interested into how you got to that 300-500 estimated hours of work.
I consider myself to be pretty busy and working on many projects concurrently, but finishing all my runway stuff would not take me 1 year of 8 hour days. More like 6 months of 8 hours days…
So can you reveal where you got that 300-500 estimate ? Thanks for the interesting article !
This is how I understood that concept:
300-500 hours of planning and taking action in regards to your projects within a span of 3-5 years would equate to something like 100 hours each year. Which means, you should be spending something like an hour every 3-4 days dedicated your projects or 2 hours each week.
I think overall, that makes a lot of sense because we all have lives and important activities that keep us busy enough so taking 1-2 hours out of a 168-hour week should work out.
I don’t think this is what he meant at all, dedicating only 2 hours each week to all of your projects is way too little. 300-500 hours refers to the time it would take to organize everything in the “Ground: calendar/actions” area (think all of your “to-do” items), assuming no new inputs in your life, so about 7-12, 40-hour workweeks. These ARE part of our “lives and important activities”, not some extra thing we do in our spare time. It would be like a once-a-generation house cleaning/organization marathon. In his GTD book Allen actually does recommend taking a days, if not week-long organization retreat to get a basic handle on all of your outstanding projects, commitments, plans and assorted “stuff”. But since virtually no one can just take 2-3 months off without anything new being added to their plate, the idea is to create a framework that allows you to process through this backlog and then deal with or “file away” new things as they come up, while systematically working on and completing our projects.
50 weeks * 40 hours/week = 2000 hours so 500 hours of work at work is 3 months. But if we allocate say 1/3 of our total to-dos to non-work, then 500 hours is 2 months. 300 hours would be about 5 weeks. Seems like a reasonable set of numbers.
Thanks for the reply.
You’re right, I miscalculated and took weeks for days… sorry about the mix-up and thanks for the clarification !
Is there a term that is used for ‘items’ across all areas of focus? By that, I mean that my HOF has a hierarchy, e.g., personal > health , but I’m looking for a term for the actual content, e.g., “I exercise to a good sweat at least three times per week.” I can think of many words describing ‘line items’, but they don’t work across all horizons: goals, values, actions, area of focus. All I can think of currently is ‘items’. Thanks.
Bob, great question. One thing that the “items” on all those levels have in common is that they are things you have committed to or agreed to. So you could call everything on the horizons some type of commitment or agreement. The commitment/agreement may be with yourself, especially on the higher levels with goals and purpose. Or the commitment/agreement may be with someone else, like an area of focus at work that’s an agreement with your employer.
I hope that’s helpful.
(I just found this page (again) doing a search on the new labels for the horizons, and came across my post from 7 years ago, and your reply.) Excellent and very helpful answer!
Hi Bob, I just came across this, new to GTD, and thought your older post was too old to reply to. Glad to see you were here 2 months ago, so that opens the door for me to share my 2 cents: from Covey’s 7 habits perspective, I think the overarching way to categorize thinks like personal > health would be in your ROLE as an INDIVIDUAL. Covey describes a process of “sharpening the saw” and thinking of your individual role across at least four levels (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual). So this GTD concept of AOF and HOF seems to me to fit into buckets I’ve always used for myself: INDIVIDUAL, SPOUSE, FAMILY MEMBER, COMPUTER PROGRAMMER, EMPLOYEE, PHOTOGRAPHER, INVESTOR, COMMUNITY SERVANT. My role as an individual is where I focus on getting better physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. That in turn means that I can offer more to my roles as a spouse, programmer, photographer, etc. Don’t know if that helps you, but it just helped me say it out loud (sort of).
You know, I really don’t understand the ‘feet’ thing. It’s not just a metric feet vs metres thing; but what does 30,000 feet mean.
It might be ok if you’re a pilot.
Do you have another analogy?
About the feet thing:
The higher your ‘airplane’ goes the more of the ground you see.
When you are on the ground you might see the next few hundret meters maybe.
When you are at 50.000ft you do longer see the small details but the big picture. You can see far. very far. Now you just need to look at where your overall direction should be.
Do you want to fly in the direction of successfull bussiness owner? philosphop? barber?
This is the area where you decide your highest thing in your life. Maybe some people seek happiness as ultimate goal. others want to read as many books as possible. others want to travel around the world …
The idea behind David’s analogy is that at higher altitudes you get more perspective, and at lower altitudes you get more detail.
You might also think of it in terms of a camera with different lenses. One might show a panoramic view of all the land. And a zoom lens might show very granular detail. Both are important views to have, not only to get things done, but to get things done that are meaningful to you.
I hope that’s helpful.
Thanks, that’s a much better analogy, perhaps the best.
Quite interesting concept. HOF brings the whole concept of to-do-list, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly activities, purpose, and vision into perspective. Quite helpful.
In looking at this, it isn’t readily apparent to me if the 20,000 feet level are the main projects in a particular job (such as the main efforts in my job as a Program Manager) or Roles, such as Program Manager, Instructor, Group Facilitator, Writer, Researcher, Family member. Going either way seems to have advantages and shortcomings.
I’d be interested in thoughts of others.
The 10k (project view) is a place where you list your things that take more than 2 actions to complete and can be completed within a year. To me, a good example of this would be your annual performance goals at work or passing a certification exam, for example. It’s a little higher level than a runway level “to-do” list. The 20k view is for addressing your ongoing maintenance items required to “keep the home fires burning”. We all have these things that we have to feed periodically, such as:
– dedicating time to family members
– church involvement
– health preservation
– networking and maintaining your sphere of influence
– “getting the wash out” or cutting the grass – literal maintenance things
I hope this helps. Best of luck to you. Matt
Projects (10,000 ft) have a measurable end that once started are expected to be completed within a specified amount of time (usually within a year or two, could be more depending on the project).
Areas of focus or responsibility (20,000 ft) don’t.
In a work role,
“Develop Children’s Writing Program for Hogwarts, Summer 2018” has multiple steps and a measurable end. – Project, Horizon 1 (10,000 ft).
“Oversee children’s program development for SuperFit USA” has multiple steps, but no measurable end. – Area of Responsibility, Horizon 2 (20,000 ft).
Where family members are concerned,
“Take trip to Bermuda in 2021 with the Harrison cousins” is a project (10,000 ft).
“Spend more time with Harrison cousins away from the daily grind” is an area of focus or responsibility (20,000 ft).
Thank you, these examples were great to explain the difference between projects and areas of focus.
I used the app on droptask.com to visually represent these “levels” of thinking where each level is a thought “Group.”
Great article. I’ve read the GTD book and I use the altitude map currently. I love this thing! Simple and effective. I recommend that whoever puts one together starts with the 50,000 ft view first. Once you’re comfortable with the vision, then try to make goals at the lower tiers that contribute to the success of the vision. Try to have most of your stuff tie together like an organizational chart. Runway items tie to 10k view, 10k items tie to 20k view, etc. etc. You may have a couple of items that don’t tie and that’s OK. Just make sure that you’re dedicating enough time and energy to support your big goals.
There is a tool called ‘Goalscape’ in which you perform a circles of your interest. From 50,000ft – the bulls eye – to the detail with adding another outside circles.
The 6 horizons of focus are very usefull for me to keep an overview of my life. I do find it helpful to put these in a mindmap. It gives me a better understanding of I am and what I. I personally use drawio, do you guys have other mindmap recommendations? I do think the app is overkill for my needs. Do you guys have another tool you use?
Cacoo can be a good tool for this, I guess.
I use Trello for other horizons, and really like it (possible to always have it on a phone, even without any Internet connexion).
I’m practicing the method for a few weeks, and the 2 first horizons (tasks and projects) are very helpful, both in my personal and professional lifes (I still split my world into these 2 sections).
I’m now working on the 3rd one, 10k feets, interest and responsibilities, and face a basic question in trying putting topics into words: do you guys turn them into kind of objectives, using verbs – like “Get a better knowledge into botanics” – or in more basic concepts – like “Botanics”?
If we’re talking about interest/responsibilities, “Botanics” looks better, but should some topics be simply “Father” and not “Being a good father” for example?
I don’t find this information in the GTD books or Website, so I hope asking the question here will help me.
Thanks for your answer(s) and/or example(s) of personal topics you put in this horizon!
(I’m not English native, sorry for my poor English)
The next level up from Projects are Areas of Focus. The best way is to contrast them with Goals. Goals have a period longer than a year and have a specific outcome by a specific date. Areas of Focus are ongoing e.g. You might have an Area of Focus called Wellbeing, which might have the following: Annual Medical, 6 monthly dental check up, annual flu jab etc. They carry on indefinitely. They support. I usually thing of them as maintenance jobs.
Thanks for your answer Peter!
I liked “These days, job descriptions are moving targets”. Things change rapidly in any sector in the era of technology, perhaps we have to rethink skills and procedures more often to keep the pace.
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